Close Encounters

hellsgateravine

On Saturday morning, we woke up early to pick up the Kenyan youth and drive back out to the Rift Valley. We stopped by a curio shop to pick up some authentic souvenirs and eventually found our way to Hell’s Gate National Park. Hell’s Gate contains the gorge that inspired Mufasa’s death scene in Lion King. When we got there, we hiked around five miles to get to the entrance of the gorge. The walk was mostly flat and we got to see dozens of zebras and warthogs in the surrounding fields. I didn’t pay much attention to the signs that read “Be Aware of Baboons” until I had a close encounter with one. I was sitting on top of a rock overlooking the surrounding area after a quick lunch when a medium sized monkey came up and sat beside me. I thought he was cute so I reached into my bag to take out my camera. As soon as I started taking pictures, he turned towards me with a determined glare and then leapt through the air towards me. Needless to say, I was terrified. I abandoned my bag and jumped off the rock at lightning speed to avoid him. Thankfully I jumped towards solid ground and not towards the side that leads down to the gorge and I was able to get my bag back afterwards. I’ll never refer to a monkey as “cute” again.

Once we got into the gorge, the temperature immediately dropped because we were away from the sun and it was like we had entered another world. There were waterfalls, hot springs, and various plants and flowers growing along the edges of the ravine. We walked along for about a mile and a half all together within the gorge and discovered places called “Devil’s Kitchen” and “Devil’s Bedroom” with our guide. There were some areas where we had to climb rocks to stay on the path. They were never more than 15 or 20 feet high but it was still challenging for some of the volunteers that are afraid of heights. There aren’t ropes or nets to catch you so if you fall, you could be seriously injured.

At the end of the hike through the gorge, there were Massai women selling handmade jewelry and trinkets. The prices were really low compared to American standards. We finally started the walk back to the van when the sun was just starting to set.  About halfway back to the entrance, we encountered several herds of buffalo out grazing for the evening. Buffalo are one of the more dangerous animals in the area because they are extremely territorial and prone to charging at intruders. It didn’t help my nerves that our guide rode ahead on a bike while we were left to walk by them, sometimes as close as 100 feet to where they were standing. They looked at us with uneasy eyes as we walked by and it was all I could do not to imagine their huge horns chasing me down. It was one of the scarier experiences I’ve had so far, but luckily we made it out without any incidents.

I got to sleep in until almost 8 this morning, a record since getting here three weeks ago. This afternoon, we’re going to visit some of the KSG students at the safe house in Kibera. The safe house is a home for girls who are dealing with particularly risky situations at home. I’m looking forward to spending time with them outside of school, learning more about their lives, and experiencing more of Kibera. This weekend has been full of adventure, adrenaline, and bittersweet realizations that the end of my experience here is coming close.

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In Defense of (Some) International Volunteering

I’ve seen a huge surge of articles recently against the “voluntourism” industry because of its impact on local communities and misguided representations of the developing world (#instagrammingafrica). If you aren’t familiar with the issue, just Google the term “voluntourism” and you will find dozens of well written articles that explain exactly how international service trips often end up perpetuating the problems that exist.  While short-term volunteer trips can often end up simply fulfilling the volunteer’s aspirations rather than solving problems in local communities, there can be merit to international service trips like the one I’m currently on. There are a few key characteristics that set this trip and others like it apart from programs that cater to the wanderlust of wealthy Westerners and disregard the need for sustainable change in distant parts of the world.

 The first factor is that the group of American volunteers I am serving with were invited into this community by local residents. Although the organization I am working through has headquarters in the United States to coordinate fundraising and management, most of the employees are Kenyan citizens. They run the organization here based on Kenyan custom and culture and are aware of the intricacies of working in a delicate community like the Kibera slums. We were invited here because of our various backgrounds in education, gender studies, or development to serve and to learn about the issues that girls in Kibera face. The volunteers that are selected for this program are highly aware that they are not coming to impose their American values on a “broken system.”

 One of the biggest criticisms I see of international service trips is that by providing services for free, they fail to empower local citizens to create their own change. There is a saying that I’ve heard used in many development discussions about giving a man a fish verses teaching a man to fish that seems applicable in this situation. While American and Kenyan youth volunteer at the Kibera School for Girls, the locally hired teachers undergo a month of professional training. Each year the subject is different and this year they are developing their social studies curriculum with the help of experienced teachers from the United States. So while we are here, we are not giving the school employees a fish but enabling them to learn to fish better.

 The most important aspect of this volunteer trip that is applicable to most international service trips is the opportunity to build lasting relationships. The American volunteers at KSG run the Summer Institute alongside a group of similarly aged Kenyan youth. I won’t deny that it’s been a challenge to overcome the cultural barriers surrounding communication and discipline. But connecting with someone at the same point in their lives from a completely different culture and background is a valuable learning experience for both parties involved. In addition, we are sharing knowledge and experience with the girls we are teaching. So far I’ve taught workshops to elementary aged students at KSG on topics ranging from positive body image to conflict resolution to volleyball. I can easily say that I’ve learned just as much from my students in Kibera as they have learned from me, if not more (especially about patience). If I’ve learned anything about sustainable development, it’s that lasting change comes from the grassroots level. If we truly care about creating a world that flourishes in peace and opportunity, building individual relationships across international borders is the first and most important step that we can take.

 I’m not defending the voluntourism industry as a whole because I agree that these short-term experiences can often do more harm than good. I’m saying that we should be cautious of categorizing all international volunteer trips under the “voluntourist” label. Serving abroad can have value and merit if done in a delicate and culturally sensitive way. I’m proud of the work I’m doing in Kibera because I know the program will have lasting effects both on the local community and on the volunteers that come from the United States. 

A Day at KSG: Teacha Teacha and Banana Drama

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We just finished our first week of the Summer Institute at the Kibera School for Girls. The days are long and keeping control of the girls is a lot harder than I expected, but they are so bright and so energetic that it is overall very enjoyable. On a typical day, we wake up around 6:30 for an early breakfast and get to Kibera around 8:00. The day starts with literacy hour. Each American volunteer is paired with a Kenyan volunteer to be in charge of an “animal group” of about 10-12 girls. I work with first graders and we are the Hippos. During literacy hour with the Hippos, we do a morning greeting and energizer while the girls have their porridge.. Afterwards, we read stories to help practice literacy. We help them sound out difficult words, identify the characters and settings, make connections with the story to their own lives, etc. This is my favorite part of the day because the girls are still calm and we are with the same group each day, so we get to know them a little better. Learning the stories of the students at KSG is a humbling experience. Out of respect for privacy I won’t write about specifics, but there have been a few moments that caught me off-guard emotionally. It is amazing that they come to school each morning ready to engage in their education with a smile on their face. They have very different attitudes towards education than the American students I have worked with.

After this, we switch classrooms to teach our first workshop to other animal groups. This week, my favorite two lessons were a conflict resolution class for kindergarteners and a mindfulness class for fourth and fifth graders. We are allowed to write lesson plans on any subject we want, because the Summer Institute is basically a summer camp while the academic teachers are receiving additional training. The most challenging workshop I have done was with a group of Pre-K students. A fellow American volunteer and I were trying to teach them to sing American songs. They were crawling all over me, tugging on my earrings, playing with my hair, and petting my face. Their English isn’t very good yet so it is hard to communicate with them. Figuring out discipline has been a challenge for all of the age groups so far.

After two workshops in the morning, the girls meet in the Hall for lunch. Lunch is typically a simple Kenyan dish like rice and beans or ugali and vegetables. I tried to get one of my students to help me perfect the art of eating ugali. You take a piece of corn meal, ball it up in your hand, poke a hole with your thumb, and scoop vegetables into the hole before eating it. “Teacha, you have never eaten ugali in your entire life?!” They were shocked that we don’t have ugali in the United States. The biggest issue at the Summer Institute this week has been distribution of the bananas.. “Teacha, I did not get a banana.” “Teacha, I do not want a banana.” “Teacha, the peacocks have stolen the bananas from our room.” The bananas have created a significant amount of conflict between students and volunteers, but by Friday we discovered that it is easiest to bring the bananas into the hall with lunch and distribute them there.

After lunch and recess, the girls go to two more workshops and end the day with all school singing. We do SO MUCH singing and SO MUCH dancing at KSG. I usually sing a song with my class before and after each lesson. It is an easy way to connect with the students and capture their attention. Sometimes we sing songs that I remember learning at camp as a kid, and sometimes we sing Kenyan songs in Swahili. I am slowly learning the lyrics and quickly getting over my fear of dancing in front of other people. After all school singing on Friday, the girls hugged us goodbye and left for the day around 5:00.

This week has made me realize that volunteering at the Summer Institute will be more challenging that I thought. I am so tired at the end of each school day that it is hard to keep my eyes open. Beyond trying to make sure the girls are behaving, it is difficult to work with the Kenyan volunteers. There are huge cultural differences in how we treat the girls and communicate with each other. I am enjoying working through these barriers and I am sure it will continue to be a learning experience. After finishing on Friday, we all went out to get ice cream together. It was nice to spend time with them where we weren’t forced to sing songs or talk about school.

Habari from Nairobi!

slums

About a year ago, I did a case study on Nairobi’s Kibera slum in a Women, Peace, and Global Justice class I took for my internship with the UVa Women’s Center. I never imagined that just a few short months later, I would be serving in Kibera myself. I arrived in Nairobi three nights ago after a solid thirty hours of traveling to meet the group of energetic and friendly American college students that I would be volunteering with. So far, we have been overwhelmed with trying to adapt to the culture and very busy with orientation. I haven’t been able to find much time to reflect, but I will try to condense a few details of what has been going on for the past few days. Orientation began the morning after I arrived with a lecture on Kenyan culture and history from two professors that teach in Nairobi. It turns out I had already committed a few cultural faux pas in the short time I had been in Kenya (namely crying outside of the airport when my ride didn’t show up, which is apparently frowned upon as a huge embarrassment).  Afterwards, we got to meet the Kenyan youth we would be volunteering with. They are around the same age and involved with various programs that are related to the Kibera School for Girls. We have been working with them over the past two days to edit and create new lesson plans for the Summer Institute with the students at KSG. The topics I’ve been submitting workshops on vary from the water cycle for Pre-K students to positive body image for older students and I’m very excited to start teaching them. The Kenyan youth are enthusiastic and happy to share their culture with us.

So far, I have spent two days in the slum itself. Although I’ve studied Kibera in several of my politics and WGS classes at UVa, nothing could quite prepare me for what exactly Kibera is like. The roads are uneven and muddy, littered with trash, stray animals, and even occasional sewage. Kibera is about the size of Central Park and is home to over one million people. There is so much going on in Kibera. Every step you take comes with a new sight and most notably a new smell, some more pleasant than others. It takes about fifteen minutes to walk to the school from where we get dropped off each morning. There are a ton of young children in Kenya. Often they are on their way to school when we are walking through and they will chase us in their school uniforms singing, “how are you, how are you, how are you” because that is how they know to say hello to Americans. The facilities at KSG are nicer than most of the buildings in Kibera. The school is painted bright colors which contrast with the tin buildings that surround it. The hardest thing to adjust to has been the bathroom at the school. Considering we spend around nine hours a day at school, using the bathroom is unavoidable. It’s a circular building with several stalls. You go in and squat over a hole in the floor and do your business. The smell is almost unbearable, but I’m slowly getting used to it. This is actually a pretty nice set up for Kibera where “flying toilets” are a common problem. Besides that, I’m still trying to adjust to the food and general lifestyle here. Luckily, the American volunteers are all in the same boat and we have already built a pretty strong support system. Tomorrow is our first day of teaching and we are all looking forward to it very much!